Strategies for setting limits with warmth (and a magic limit-setting phrase)

When making the switch to authenticity, parents often have trouble navigating limit setting. “How do I set limits without morphing into the authority?”

It’s a great question.

First, understand that children are like computers in the sense that you get out what you put in. In computer programming, the phrase is, “garbage in, garbage out.”

Let’s assume you’ve policed your child, failed to give them the autonomy they crave, and have used coercion to get what you want. Have you inspired them to cooperate with requests?

Most likely, they’re going to fight you. Garbage in, garbage out.

So, the switch is going to take a little extra patience on your part. Just a heads up.

The first goal is to start setting limits with warmth. When you come across a situation where a limit needs to be set (knowing this is an art, by the way), that’s not a call to anger and authoritarianism. You must ditch that toxic programming.

Limits can and must be set with love and kindness. It starts with the language you use and the logical progression of requests (that offer as much autonomy and decision making as possible).

Preface 1: This is an example for a very young child because the more you do this at a young age, the less its required at older ages.

Preface 2: I’m using an example of a child going in the street. If the street is TRULY very dangerous where you live, they shouldn’t be playing near it anyway. Avoid negative situations in the first place if possible — that’s always the best advice.

Step One: Inform

Let your child know what you’re concerned about. This is not a stage where you’re telling them what to do — you’re just giving information.

“Sam, I’m concerned that you’re getting close to the street. That’s not a safe place to play.”

This one simple act of communication gets many kids to back away. If it doesn’t, then you move to the next step.

Step Two: Request & Establish a Clear Boundary/Limit

[You’ve now positioned yourself between them and the street].

“Sam, I see you’re very close to the street. The street is not safe. Can you back away?”

You’re making your official request and setting the limit.

It’s important to not be too animated. The softer the voice, the better. Whispering causes kids to need to lean in and really tune in to what you’re saying. The louder you are, the more likely they are to tune you out as a defense mechanism.

At this point, if you’ve raised a child authentically and they’re not in an pattern of opposition with you, they’ll often move themselves. For those of you making the transition, you may get a lot of push back here.

Step Three: Follow Through

It’s time. You’ve offered the autonomy and decision making within reason and they’re not backing away from the street. This doesn’t mean they’re being defiant, by the way. Curiosity is powerful — it’s not always about you!

How you handle this step is very important. If you drop the hammer, it’s game over — you lose and they lose.

So, I’m going to give you three ideas. The first is a cooperation-based idea that nuances the limit. The second is a straight negotiation with a firm boundary. The other is a “this is too dangerous for plan A or B” idea or “Plan A and B failed and I must truly keep you safe” idea.

Plan A: “Sam, you seem very curious about the street. The street is not a safe place to play on your own. Would you like to go in the street with me so you can explore and I can keep you safe?” — That’s a limit and a negotiation all wrapped into one. This is the best solution as it then gives you the opportunity to teach about why the street is not a safe place to play without you. At the same time, they get to do what they wanted: explore the street. It’s a win-win.

Plan B: Another win-win is to negotiate an alternative. While physically blocking the street to keep them safe, offer, “You’re really interested in the street. I can’t let you play there, but you can play (alternative place).”

When a boundary is set with a child, all they think about is that boundary. It’s important to try and direct their mind to “the next thing” so they don’t hyper-focus on the boundary.

Plan C – The magic limit-setting phrase: “Sam, can you back away from the street on your own or do you need my help?

Children come to learn that this phrase means, “Either I do it myself or someone is going to do it for me, imminently.” But, it’s also a last offer of autonomy while clearly communicating a boundary has been drawn and there is no wiggle room.

Most of the time they’ll choose to stay autonomous and respect the boundary on their own. For the sake of argument, let’s say they don’t.

“I see you need my help. I’ll help you back away.” And then you [gently and with kindness and warmth] move them away. This is a win-lose scenario, so it’s not preferable and should only be used in times of legitimate danger to your child, other children, or property.

It’s quite possible that they have a huge outpouring of emotion at this point. Screaming, crying, and flailing. That’s normal behavior for someone who was just rendered powerless. Tantrums don’t need to be avoided. They’re not bad. They’re a healthy outlet for anger and frustration.

It’s important to validate their emotions at this time. “I hear you’re so upset that I moved you. That’s so frustrating, isn’t it? But, I had to keep you safe.”

Once they’ve calmed down, you can revert back to plan A. “Sam, I will still explore the street with you if you’d like, but I can’t let you go into the street on your own. Do you want me to come with you?”

If they still say no, you can go back to Plan B while also extending the boundary by offering a natural consequence (which is not a punishment). “Okay, go play, but if you go in the street, I’m going to take you inside to keep you safe.”

Saying, “if you go near the street…” is not a clear boundary. Near is not definable. “IN the street” is clearly defined. Again, if the street is too busy that this is not a safe boundary to set because “in” could mean imminent death, then they shouldn’t be playing near the street in the first place.

Step Four: Let go.

Trust them. Don’t chase them around with “ah ah ahs!” If they go in the street, you take them inside. Again, with warmth and validation.

Conclusion

As I said before, the more authentic you’ve been in the past, the more likely the win-win scenarios are to work and the less likely you are to need Plan C.

Plan C is a last resort. But even if Plan C is needed, it’s done with warmth, kindness, and validation. Anger and violence, or threats of violence, are never necessary. Empathy should be the foundation of every action you take and every word you speak.

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Strategies for setting limits with warmth (and a magic limit…

by Kevin Geary time to read: 5 min
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